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The Connection Between Sleep Deprivation and Weight Loss

Adequate sleep and recovery is one of the seven essential components needed for effective fat loss and body transformation. Without enough sleep your body stays in an on-going catabolic state where hormonal imbalances essentially block fat loss. As a double whammy, you’ll also be more likely to gain weight with stress related eating habits. Research has shown that individuals who do not get enough sleep are, get this, a whopping 73% more likely to be overweight than those getting 7-8 hours per night!

In today's blog post I’m going to explain just exactly why this happens along with providing you some tips on how to improve your sleep patterns and therefore your weight loss. The first principal we must come to terms with is that health and body composition hinges on sufficient rest and recovery. The old adage, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” may sound cool but the truth is you’ll just get there quicker. You can only push the human body so hard for so long before things start to break down.

If you’re currently not getting enough sleep this needs to be a top priority. Sure, exercise and a healthy diet are important, but if you’re not getting adequate rest and recovery you’re going to struggle with your health and waistline.

Let’s start by looking at the hormonal shifts that occur when you don’t get enough sleep so you can really understand what’s going on here.

Sleep deprivation and ghrelin

Ghrelin is a hormone secreted by the stomach to stimulate hunger. There is a natural ebb and flow of ghrelin levels that happen through the day in response to blood sugar levels.

When blood sugar levels and energy reserves start to drop, ghrelin is secreted to signal your brain that it’s time to start looking for food. As a built-in primal response ghrelin serves an important function in helping the body to sustain energy and nutrition.

The problem is when we alter the normal hormonal patterns and start signaling for more food when the body doesn’t really need it. You’ll often hear me relate to this as being “false hunger.”

When you go without adequate sleep your body significantly increases ghrelin production. This totally throws off your true hunger signals during the following day and causes you to crave sugary or salty foods. Bottom line is the more you alter normal hormonal balances the more likely you are to binge eat and make unhealthy choices.

Sleep deprivation and leptin

Leptin is the sister hormone to ghrelin which sends signals to your brain indicating that you’re full or satiated. When you’re in a state of sleep deprivation, leptin levels will plummet. The combination of increasing grehlin levels and decreasing leptin levels is the one-two punch that makes it so easy to gain weight if you’re regularly not getting enough sleep.

Sleep deprivation and cortisol levels

Without question one of the most common triggers of chronic stress is not getting enough sleep. You have to remember that if you’re not getting deep REM sleep your body isn’t able to get into what’s called an anabolic state. This is where hormones like testosterone, IGF-1, growth hormone, and others are secreted to help rebuild and repair at the cellular level.

When you don’t get enough sleep you in essence stay stuck in a catabolic state which results in an overproduction of cortisol by the adrenals. Perpetually elevated levels of cortisol create a cascading series of hormonal imbalances affecting nearly every part of the endocrine system.

Insulin sensitivity goes down, testosterone levels go down, growth hormone decreases, thyroid production drops, and the list goes on. Left unchecked you’ll be on the path towards adrenal fatigue.

Chronic stress is the primary cause of increased inflammation in the body which is at the root of all illness and disease. It’s the hidden killer as you can’t see the damage that’s being done often time until it’s too late. The evidence of damage is not always visible in a person being overweight or appearing unfit.

It’s what you couldn’t see going on inside the body that often leads to a premature death. Being emotionally stressed out, working long hours, and living off coffee and energy drinks, etc, is only asking for trouble. It doesn’t matter how much you exercise; you won’t be able to rebuild and repair if you’re in a state of chronic stress. We’ve all heard stories of the guy who ran several miles each day but didn’t sleep much and put in long hours at the office that had a heart attack at an early age. The real culprit in the majority of these cases was chronic stress and the resulting internal inflammation it created behind the scenes.

Sleep deprivation and age

While lifestyle factors certainly contribute to sleep deprivation so does age and the natural hormonal declines that come with it. A person the age of 20 gets on average 100 minutes of deep sleep each night. By the time they reach age 50 they’ll get on average 20 minutes of deep sleep each night. Anyone who is over 50 will tell you they just don’t sleep through the night like they used to.

While hormonal shifts are largely the reason why, there are ways to offset it. Exercise, both cardiovascular and resistance training are very effective at helping to improve sleep as you get older.

Resistance training is essential so don’t think you can just do some aerobic exercise alone, as low-moderate intensity aerobic exercise has little effect on growth hormone, IGF-1, and other hormones involved in the rebuilding processes. Also be forewarned not to do too much cardio or a lot of higher intensity cardio as either when combined with sleep deprivation can significantly increase chronic stress and cellular inflammation.

It’s been my experience that sleep deprivation is frequently at the core of reasons why an individual is stuck being unable to change their body composition. I’ve seen this over and over again while working with personal training clients over the past twenty years. Bottom line: if you’re not getting enough sleep you’re going to struggle seeing the results you want in ANY exercise or diet program.

Unfortunately, many individuals who don’t see results with their exercise will often resort to even lower-calorie dieting, but once again that only increases chronic stress. It’s a vicious cycle and the more you exercise and the more you cut calories, the worse it gets. It’s all about balance.

Consider the following: did you know that a person can go into a pre-diabetic state with just six days of sleep deprivation. You may avoid seeing problems for a while but sooner or later you’ll see sleep deprivation manifest itself in illness.

As a certified Charleston personal trainer that specializes in helping people reverse hormonal imbalances for a successful body transformation, here are my top tips I give to clients suffering from sleep issues.

Exercise with both cardiovascular and resistance training to help improve hormonal balances which in turn will help you to sleep.

You’ll want to have a well-balanced exercise program that works the entire body. The majority of your exercise can be low to moderate intensity, but make sure to include some higher intensity work as well for the hormonal benefits. For older adults, a little bit of higher intensity exercise is sufficient.

Regardless of the diet you follow, eat mostly natural, whole foods.

Get out most of the processed and refined foods from your diet. Natural foods consumed in balance help make you well, man-made foods only rob you of your health.

Get a grip on emotional stress in your life

Do everything and anything you can to create balance in your life, no matter what it takes. It’s too important not to. Emotional stress coming from work or at home may be difficult to control, but you can alter how you respond to it. Take ownership on whether or not you’re going to let stress steal your health. If you have to overhaul certain areas in your life, do it! That may mean making sacrifices, getting rid of caustic and negative people, making less money by putting in fewer hours, etc. At the end of the day though you’ll have to determine what’s most important in your life. Let me be blunt, putting your health at the bottom of the priority list is actually doing a disservice to your family and loved ones.

Take the TV out of the bedroom

There are numerous studies that have shown how watching TV in bed can significantly alter sleep patterns. Instead of watching TV in bed, read a book instead. I’ve encountered individuals who have literally tried to convince me that having a TV in their bedroom made it easier for them to sleep. While it may help someone “go to sleep” it’s certainly not helping with getting more REM sleep. In fact, most of these same individuals will report waking up frequently through the night and not being able to sleep later. Waking up at 3 or 4AM is a common indicator of stress and a sign you’re lacking REM sleep. Remember this is where you’re doing most of the rebuilding and recovering (the anabolic processes) in your body.

Set a cut-off time for reading on your phone or tablet

This falls into the same category as the TV, though for many it’s replaced the habit of watching TV in bed or around bedtime. Look, I understand this isn’t 1978 and you’re not going to be sitting in the easy chair reading the evening newspaper. Most of us have moved to reading the news or doing recreational reading on our cell phones, tablets, or computers. But we have to be cognitive of the fact that we’re on lighted devices, staring at a glaring screen. This is stimulating to your central nervous system, and when you want to be turning that down, you’re keeping it amped up by sitting behind a screen. Go ahead and get on your phone or tablet in the evening if you wish, but simply be an adult about it and set yourself a cut-off time. I recommend giving yourself an hour or more of screenless time before hitting the sack.

Drink chamomile or other night-time tea blends before going to bed

My personal favorite is the Yogi brand “bed-time” tea. It’s got a natural sweet taste and can help you with night-time sugar cravings. The blend of chamomile and other herbs helps to bring you down and promotes a relaxed state conducive for sleeping.

Don’t go to bed hungry

You’re much better off eating a small snack than going to be starving. Falling blood sugar levels will trigger cortisol secretion making you wake up through the night. For a good night’s rest you’ll want to avoid the sharp falls in blood sugar.

Avoid eating a lot of starch carbohydrates at dinner

You’ll likely find that you sleep best when you’ve had some lean protein and vegetables for dinner. The excess blood sugar created by eating a lot of starches (a big plate of pasta for example) at dinner drives up insulin levels which one again affects cortisol secretion. You’ll also want to avoid eating sugary snacks after dinner for this same reason. Flooding your body with sugar is a sure-fire way to disrupt sleep.

Avoid excessive alcohol consumption at night

A glass of wine is fine but once you start getting into excessive alcohol you’re going to disrupt the hormonal balances and affect sleep. Contrary to popular belief, having several drinks before bed doesn’t really help you get “true” sleep. Sure, you may fall asleep more quickly, but you won’t be spending much time in REM sleep. Also, excessive alcohol only perpetuates a catabolic state by stopping the release of anabolic hormones like testosterone and growth hormone.

Establish set times for going to sleep and awakening

One of the most common mistakes people make is not getting on a regular sleep cycle. Set a time to go to bed and when you’ll wake up. Set an alarm if you must in order to awaken at your set time. When you first begin going to bed at a designated time you may lie in bed staring at the ceiling, but over time your body will adjust and get on a regular schedule. The reward for your persistence is you’ll likely find that you can fall right asleep at your regular time and awaken without an alarm.

When problems persist talk with your physician and consider a sleep study

There are a lot of things that can cause sleep apnea which will prevent you from getting REM sleep. When you continue struggling with sleep after making lifestyle changes, don’t hesitate to be checked for sleep apnea. I’ve had several clients over the years see dramatic improvements after receiving treatment for their sleep apnea. Regardless, if you’ve not been getting much sleep for an extended period of time, it’s probably a good idea to have a chat with your doctor. I’ve shared with you with just a handful of tips that can help improve your sleep habits, and there’s many more that you can utilize. Bottom line is you really should take this seriously. While it may be frustrating being in a weight loss plateau, what’s more concerning is the hidden internal inflammation that’s being triggered by chronic sleep deprivation.

If I can help you with the exercise portion of the equation to better sleep and wellness, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Sometimes, having guidance, accountability, and coaching can help increase the chances for success with lifestyle changes. Any way I may be able to help I’d be honored to be at your service.  

Shane Doll CPT, CSCS is a fitness professional and expert on exercise and body transformation for middle age and mature adults. He seeks to make a difference in the lives of others by providing instruction and coaching with a servant-based attitude. Since 2004 his Charleston personal training programs have helped over 3,000 Lowcountry residents.


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